At the American Folklife Center, a blues resurrection: A long-lost recording by bluesman Robert Johnson is most remarkable for flaws that make the legendary musician a little more human. MUSIC

May 03, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Listen to the first version of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues," and you can imagine him sitting in the makeshift recording studio, slapping his guitar in disgust and asking the engineer to give him another chance.

He does not sound like the brilliant performer once rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil. He sounds nervous, unsure, his voice unsteady. There is none of the drive and confidence the great bluesman brought to the second version.

Until now, only a handful of people had ever heard the first take of this recording. When Columbia issued "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" in 1990, the producers numbered this version among 19 Johnson efforts that "remain unfound, if ever issued; destroyed after being recorded (if ever); or otherwise unknown to collectors."

Even Alan Lomax, the renowned folklorist, had forgotten he had the disc. Now the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress has the recording, having bought it from the Lomax archives. It is not Johnson's best work, but by its flaws it humanizes a legendary figure, adding a few more brush strokes to his portrait.

"It is precious because it does give more insight into him and his art," says Alan Jabbour, director of the folklife center. "The more performances you have of any artist, the more it helps you understand how his art works."

The recording is on a chipped, 10-inch, single-sided, laminated shellac disc known as a "test pressing." During Johnson's time, engineers auditioned recordings for release by making a test copy from an acetate-coated aluminum disc that held the original performance. Usually they had two different performances of each song. Neither recording of "Traveling Riverside Blues" was released on 78 rpm record in Johnson's lifetime. And no one knows what happened to the aluminum disc.

The "test pressing," now on display at the Library of Congress, is one of six Johnson recordings made by Lomax. The folklife center bought them from the Lomax archives for $10,000. All but the version of "Traveling Riverside Blues" had been released on 78 rpm records, long-playing albums or compact disc.

"It's the sole existing copy, and I'm sure no other will ever turn up," says Jabbour. "It's part of the Robert Johnson legacy, which in turn is part of our blues legacy."

In the 60 years since his death, Johnson has become the most celebrated and storied bluesman from the Mississippi Delta. Several Web sites present his story. People travel thousands of miles to leave mementos at his two memorials. One is located at Payne Chapel Methodist Baptist Church in Quito, Miss.; the other is 10 miles away at Mount Zion Methodist Baptist Church north of Morgan City, Miss.

For years, little was known about him. No one had any photographs, only fading memories. His music, with its stories of hellhounds and trouble, synthesized the blues of his time. Columbia's CD collection of his recordings was a surprise hit, making the Billboard charts and winning a Grammy.

The liner notes featured comments from Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important musician who ever lived," and from Keith Richards, who wrote: "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it."

Johnson recorded "Traveling Riverside Blues" on June 27, 1937, for what was then the American Record Corporation. He employs a rhythm that dates back perhaps to the late 1800s, plays a bottleneck slide and brags about having women from "Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee."

He cut 10 songs that Sunday in Dallas, then he went his way, hopping freights, hitching rides, playing the blues. The strength of those and earlier recordings carried his reputation to New York. John Hammond, the jazz critic and talent scout who later played an instrumental role in Bob Dylan's career, wanted Johnson for the Spirituals to Swing concert in November 1938. By then Johnson was dead, killed by a dose of poison mixed in his whiskey. He was 27.

Lomax had heard of Johnson's music through Hammond. Three years later, he joined members of Fisk University, a black college in Nashville, Tenn., to study the music of the Mississippi Delta. He also wanted to find out if Johnson's death was rumor. In his 1993 memoir, "The Land Where the Blues Began," he recounted meeting Mary Johnson and listening to her story of her son's death.

"When I went where he at, he layin up in bed with his guitar crost his breast. Soon's he saw me, he say, 'Mama, you all I been waitin for,' " writes Lomax, approximating Mary Johnson's dialect. " 'Here,' he say, and he give me his guitar, 'take and hang this thing on the wall, cause I done pass all that by.'"

A few years later, Lomax made the test pressings that later found their way to the Library of Congress.

"Whoever he got it from has long since passed from the scene, no doubt," says Jabbour. "And there was no paper trail. Nobody even thought to say, 'Alan Lomax, do you still have those copies of that test pressing?'"

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